Thunderbird Lodge negotiates to reduce debt
Thunderbird Lodge is working to go it
The caretakers of the Lake Tahoe
estate are negotiating with Del Webb
Corp., now owned by Pulte Homes Inc.,
to erase the $10 million Thunderbird
Lodge still owes its former owner.
The hope is to remove the outstanding
debt so Thunderbird Lodge can operate
self-sufficiently as a non-profit tourist
attraction while it is maintained as a piece
of Nevada history.
“It is one of the most important buildings
in Nevada, after the capitol,” said Joe
Bourdeau, executive vice president of
business development at Nevada Security
Bank in Incline Village, and president of
the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation
For those who don’t know, the
Thunderbird Lodge is the lakeside estate
built in 1936 by George Whittell Jr., a
wealthy Californian who at one time
owned 40,000 acres surrounding Lake
“He was the John Muir of Lake
Tahoe, not by design but by default,” said
Thanks to Whittell’s reclusive ways,
much of the land he owned was never
developed, and eventually ended up in the
hands of the U.S. Forest Service and
Nevada State Parks.
But as policy the Forest Service only
owns land, not buildings, so the
Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society
was founded in 1999 to take care of the
buildings on the estate.
Those buildings include a three-car
garage that was actually used by the animal-
loving Whittell to house elephants.
There is also a small, one-room building
once used by Whittell and his friends to
play poker. It’s connected to the main
house via a 600-foot tunnel that runs
underground from the lodge to the
estate’s original boat house. (A second
boat house was eventually built to dock
Whittell’s 55-foot Thunderbird yacht,
which is now owned by Joan Gibb and
can still be seen on the lake during the
The lodge itself is a small, two-bedroom
stone building, with a larger addition
built in 1985 by its second owner,
Jack Dreyfus, founder of the Dreyfus
Fund. Dreyfus, who bought the property
in 1972, never lived in the house due to
what he perceived to be “the negative
ions,” said Bourdeau.
In 1998, Del Webb bought the lodge
and 140 acres for $50 million simply to
use it to acquire land in the Las Vegas
area. The corporation exchanged the
estate for Bureau of Land Management
property in Henderson. That property,
though, was valued at $40 million, leaving
the $10 million still owed to Del Webb as
part of the exchange. (The Henderson
property has since been turned into a
$340 million development, according to
Now, Bourdeau is hopeful the preservation
society can convince Pulte to
donate the outstanding $10 million.
That would leave the lodge with
money raised from its capital campaign as
well as the revenue it generates from
The lodge is run with three fulltime
staff and 90 unpaid volunteers, who conduct
public tours, manage a gift shop and
help host weddings and corporate
For a mere $16,000 a day, anyone can
host a Saturday wedding at the lodge.
(You can reduce that to $7,500 if you’re
willing to wed Monday through
Thursday.) A half-day corporate retreat
costs $5,500 Monday through Thursday
or $11,000 on Friday through Sunday.
The lodge hosted eight weddings this
year and has so far scheduled 10 weddings
for next year, said Bourdeau.
For most of us, though, $22 will cover
the cost of a tour of the estate, which
offers unparalleled views of the lake.
The society has other ideas too for
making money. This month it hosted an
event for 10 screenwriters in hopes of luring
some film location work to the site,
And there’s the gift shop, with typical
tourist merchandise refrigerator magnets,
postcards and jackets embroidered
with the Thunderbird Lodge logo as
well as coffee table book chronicling the
estate’s peculiar history.
Most of those idiosyncrasies were provided
by Whittell, a man who lived up to
his oath to never work a day in his life,
said Bourdeau. One of Whittell’s closest
companions was a lion named Bill. He
married three times; the first two were
annulled since the marriages didn’t please
his family. He had no children and left
most of his money to animal advocacy
A rabble rouser in his youth,Whittell
became very reclusive later in life, said
Bourdeau. He installed colored on top of
the games house to signal friends whether
he wanted any visitors. He showed
movies in the lodge, but would keep his
back to the projectionist when telling him
what he wanted shown. His greatest love,
according to the tour, was a maid who
died in a car accident on the way back to
the lodge from the grocers.
The lodge’s interesting history, not to
mention its spectacular location and
beautiful stone masonry, has attracted the
attention of PBS, which is planning to
film a documentary about the estate, said
That’s good news for not just the
lodge and the preservation society, but for
Lake Tahoe as well, said Bourdeau.
Thunderbird Lodge, said Bourdeau, is
more than just a jewel in the lake’s crown.
“The lodge,” he said, “is great for economic
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